Retinol vs Retinoid: Everything You Need to Know

If you go to any beauty retailer website, you’ll see over 100 retinol and retinoid products. Over-the-counter retinol and dermatologist-grade retinoid are quintessential skincare ingredients known for their ability to fight wrinkles and acne. The names of these buzzworthy ingredients are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. You need to know what the difference is so you can choose the best option for your skincare routine.

The TL;DR: Retinol is less potent and takes longer to produce results. Ultimately, derm-grade retinoid has the anti-photoaging superpowers that dreams are made of.

With Night Shift, you get derm-grade retinoid online, in a formula tailored to your skin. No need to worry if you’re a retinoid newbie or have sensitive skin. Your doctor may start you on a starter strength to give your skin a chance to adapt to your new skincare routine. Then you’ll get ramped up to the concentration that’s ideal for your skin type. Night Shift comes with an online evaluation by a board-certified doctor, so you can do it all from the comfort of your home — no in-person visit required.

What’s the difference between retinol and retinoid?

Derm-grade retinoid is the more powerful cousin of over-the-counter retinol.

Technically, retinoid is a broader term in skincare for topicals that contain vitamin A derivatives. Retinoids include retinol, Tretinoin (known by the brand name Retin-A), adapalene (Differin), tazarotene, retinyl palmitate, and more.

Retinol is the precursor to Tretinoin (also known as retinoic acid). Because it’s not the active ingredient like Tretinoin, it must undergo several conversion steps before it becomes pure Tretinoin. This makes it not only weaker but also less stable than Tretinoin, and more prone to degradation upon exposure to light and air. The skin tolerates it well and generally doesn’t dry out, but it may not offer the same benefits to the skin as fast.

Tretinoin is a more potent retinoid that you can get from a dermatologist. It’s 20 times more potent than retinol and achieves visible results faster in skin texture, tone, and appearance. When derms talk about retinoid in skincare, they’re usually referring to Tretinoin. This prescription retinoid is an effective treatment for photoaging (i.e., premature skin aging due to repeated sun exposure) and can show results within four to six weeks with a significant improvement of fine lines and wrinkles after four weeks compared to 12 weeks for retinol. Though it may be more drying, a moisturizer and sunscreen offset this.

What does retinoid do?

Though dermatology-grade retinoid and OTC retinol have similar benefits, derm-grade retinoid yields stronger results over the same period.

Improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

Retinol and Tretinoin minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by accelerating the production of collagen.

Collagen is a protein that is the primary component of connective tissue. It provides a flexible, supple support network in the dermal layer of your skin (the layer of your skin below the epidermis).

The skin is 80% collagen. After the age of 20, collagen production drops by about 1% every year, contributing to fine lines and wrinkles. One study found that that collagen in the skin increased by up to 80% with the daily application of Tretinoin over 10 to 12 months. The control group saw a decrease in collagen production of 14%. So it’s worth maintaining collagen health if you’re concerned about premature fine lines and wrinkles.

Minimize the appearance of pores

Enlarged facial pores are caused by the buildup of oil, dirt, and dead skin cells. Through the natural aging process, pores can also appear larger. Retinol and derm-grade retinoid make pores appear smaller by clearing the debris in enlarged pores.

The pores on the face are oil pores — meaning they have sebaceous glands below the pores that secrete oil (or sebum). Oil pores are usually the ones that get clogged and appear larger as a result. That’s why you generally don’t get enlarged pores on other parts of the body. When you clear the debris building up in pores and increase cell turnover with a prescription-strength retinoid, the pores shrink and become less visible.

Beyond regular sebum production, the makeup and skincare products you use can also contribute to buildup in pores. If you want to reduce buildup, check your skincare and makeup products for comedogenic ingredients. “Comedogenic ingredients” refer to pore-blocking ingredients, such as coconut oil, beeswax, and polyglyceryl-3-diisostearate, that can cause blackheads and make pores appear larger.

Decrease acne

Retinol and retinoid decrease acne breakouts by reducing comedones and their precursor, microcomedones.

Comedones are small flesh-colored bumps found on the faces of people with noninflammatory acne. Microcomedones are microscopic comedones and a precursor to either of two types of acne.

The two types of acne are noninflammatory acne, characterized by comedones, and inflammatory acne, which predominantly consists of papules and pustules.

Tretinoin decreases both comedones and microcomedones. So it primarily decreases noninflammatory acne and reduces some inflammatory acne.

Acne treatment isn’t as straightforward as adding a new product to your skincare routine, though. Talk to your dermatologist before adding any topical retinoids to your routine.

Make skin smoother

When dead skin cells linger, they can lead to clogged pores, dryness, and flaking. Retinol and retinoid make skin smoother by reducing the layer of dead skin cells — the same thing you get from exfoliation — and increasing glycosaminoglycan (GAG).

Glycosaminoglycans play a key role in cell health, including hydration, structural scaffolding, and cell adhesion. You might be familiar with one of the most popular glycosaminoglycans, hyaluronic acid. If so, you know that it’s important for preventing dry skin and for making it more firm and elastic, thereby looking and feeling more smooth.

Improve pigmentation

Hyperpigmentation, or uneven skin tone, is the result of an increase in melanin production. This can be due to sun exposure, hormonal changes, age, medications, skin injuries, or disease.

Melanin is a natural pigment that contributes to your skin, hair, and eye color. When melanin isn’t dispersed evenly, it can cause melasma, sunspots, dark spots, and freckles.

Retinol and retinoid make skin pigmentation more even by dispersing melanin granules.

Retinol vs retinoid: Which should you use?

Retinol is essentially the training wheels for derm-grade retinoid. While they have similar skin benefits, you’ll see faster results with derm-grade retinoid over the same period.

When you buy retinol over the counter, you have no control over the formulation since it’s not regulated by the FDA, and it’s hard to figure out what’s right for your skin. By talking to a dermatologist, you can get the right retinoid formula tailored specifically to your skin.

If you have sensitive skin or skin concerns like psoriasis, you can still use derm-grade retinoids. In fact, Tretinoin is a proven component of an effective skincare routine to effectively treat psoriasis symptoms. Be sure to mention your concerns to your dermatologist so they can decide if a lower concentration first makes more sense. Minimize side effects by paying attention to your skin, and reduce application frequency if needed to let your skin adapt. Use moisturizer often to mitigate any side effects, and don’t forget sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

While you’ll see faster results with derm-grade retinoid, if you’re not ready to dive in, you can start with a retinol product to see how your skin reacts or let your dermatologist know so that they can start you on a lower strength first.

Get smoother, healthier skin with Night Shift

By integrating retinoids into your skincare routine, you can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, minimize pores, decrease acne, make skin smoother, and improve pigmentation distribution. If you want potent results, you’ll start to see healthier, smoother, glowy skin within four to six weeks of using derm-grade retinoid. (Individual results may vary.) And regardless of how quickly you see initial results, you’ll continue to see better results over time until it becomes about prevention. Retinoids continue working to keep your skin healthy.

The most effective retinoid can’t be store-bought. Dear Brightly’s service brings an online provider to you. Night Shift is a dermatologist-formulated retinoid tailored to your skin.

Tretinoin, the active ingredient in Night Shift, is 20 times more potent than retinol and the only FDA-approved retinoid for photoaging.

Get started by sharing your skin and skin history in your Skin Profile. Your doctor will evaluate your Skin Profile and write a prescription for your tailored retinoid serum, if applicable. Your tailored retinoid serum will be delivered to you in the mail.